The rise of female jockeys began in 1972 when Meriel Tufnell became the first woman to ride a UK horse racing winner under Jockey Club rules, steering Scorched Earth to victory in a race at Kempton. Fast forward to 1977 when Charlotte Brew partnered Barony Fort in that year’s Grand National and then 1982 when Geraldine Rees rode Cheers to a gallant eighth place in the world’s most famous race, to become the first female rider to complete the course.
Each were small pieces of history that threatened to see female jockeys burst through into a male-dominated sport, at least on the track. It has certainly been easier down through the years for women in horse racing to make their mark as a trainer and globally there have been some great names come to the fore.
Key names include Gai Waterhouse and Alana Williamsin Australia, Sarah Steinberg in Italy, Pia Brandt and Corine Barande-Barbe in France and, much closer to home, the formidable Jenny Pitman and Venetia Williams as well as Ireland’s Jessica Harrington, all of whom have enjoyed great success in training and racing horses rather than riding them.
For some time breaking into the on-track racing world as a jockey has proven a very difficult ask for women entering the sport. In recent years, however, many of the walls and barriers to success that stood in the way of female jockeys have been smashed down both over the jumps and on the flat.
The top-class Irish pair of riders, Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh, were for years the biggest female jockeys in the National Hunt game and have passed the baton of success onto Bryony Frost and Rachael Blackmore, who have both showcased their talents in winning Grade One races.
The now-retired Lizzie Kelly also showed her talents in the saddle, winning twice at the Cheltenham Festival and riding a Grade One winner at Kempton, while rising star Bridget Andrews is a much-valued member of the Dan Skelton operation.
On the flat, Hayley Turner was the first to break through and is widely credited as the first to achieve a sustained and successful career in the saddle as a professional female jockey. The first to break the 100 winners in a season milestone, Turner also rode a Group One winner with Dream Ahead in the 2011 July Cup and repeated the feat with a second Group One success in the Nunthorpe Stakes, this time with Margot Did. Turner is still plying her trade following a brief retirement and continues to enjoy success in the saddle.
Jospehine Gordon followed in Turner’s footsteps, becoming the second woman to ride 100 winners in a calendar year in 2017, her first season as a professional. While big race glory has eluded Gordon thus far, she remains a very capable rider who can be seen regularly riding around the UK.
Both are undoubtedly talented and will continue to enjoy success but their respective stars have perhaps dimmed a little with the emergence of racing’s latest rising star in Hollie Doyle.
The diminutive rider has certainly created a big impression since bursting into the mainstream, setting a new high score for winners in a calendar year in 2019 with 116 and, alongside Gordon and Turner on the flat, are helping to change trainers’ attitudes towards using female jockeys by proving that they are every bit as good as their male counterparts.
There is perhaps still an element of doubt, or discrimination, when it comes to the biggest opportunities and the trio rarely feature in the elite races at Group level when there are so many male jockeys available. It is a shame that all three are often overlooked when it comes to riding at the very top.
The trio combined to great success in the 2018 Shergar Cup, where Doyle was a last-minute replacement, and emerged victorious from the battle to claim the top honours. Both Doyle and Turner got on the scoresheet that day, with Gordon twice making the frame en route to a 76-point haul.
Despite the exploits of Turner and Gordon putting female riders firmly on the map, it is perhaps Doyle who will properly smash the lingering reluctance to put up a female rider in big races. Successfully doing so would increase opportunities not only for her but also for other rising female stars in the weighing room, such as Nicola Currie, Megan Nicholls and Faye McManoman, whose stocks are also on the rise.
Hollie Doyle, though, continues to impress in the saddle and, despite her small stature at just five feet tall, she makes up for her lack of size when it comes to race-riding and, even amongst the male riders, there are few stronger when it comes to riding a tight finish.
Tactically astute, able to both dictate the pace and ride off the speed, Doyle rarely has her horses in a bad position in races and she’s certainly not afraid to go through gaps when needed to make a challenge if the situation demands.
Her talents certainly haven’t gone unnoticed following a spell with top trainer Richard Hannon and, with the backing of some other top yards such as Archie Watson and Alan King, she has now landed a top job as retained rider to Derby-winning owner Imad Al Sagar whose colours were carried to Epsom Classic success by Authorized.
Doyle is already among the winners in those famous emerald green colours, steering Roger Charlton’s Extra Elusive to victory in the recent Group Three Rose Of Lancaster Stakes at Haydock and she’s sure to enjoy plenty more success both in those colours and without. She rode a Listed winner in France 24 hours later for Archie Watson and, at the time of writing, boasts a 16% strike-rate from her rides in the UK.
Her talents have led her to be proclaimed a ‘champion jockey in waiting’ and it is hard to disagree with that assessment – assuming of course she gets the opportunities.
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